MEXICO CITY, Jan 5 (Reuters) – Mexican security forces captured on Thursday drug cartel leader Ovidio Guzman, a son of jailed kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, triggering a wave of violence ahead of a visit by U.S. President Joe Biden next week.
The violence took place largely in the city of Culiacan in the northern Sinaloa state, home to the powerful drug cartel of the same name that El Chapo headed before his extradition to the United States in 2017.
State governor Ruben Rocha said seven members of the security forces had been killed, including a colonel, and 21 had been injured as well as eight civilians.
Rocha said there had been 12 clashes with the security forces, 25 acts of looting, and 250 vehicles had been set on fire and used to block roads.
“Tomorrow we think we will be able to work normally,” he said, adding that he had not discussed calling more reinforcements from the army or the National Guard.
A failed operation to detain Ovidio in 2019 ended in humiliation for the government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, after the arrest triggered a wave of violence that forced authorities to shutter Culiacan’s schools and airports.
At that time, Ovidio, who has become a key figure in the cartel since the arrest of his father, was quickly released to end violent retribution from his cartel.
Defense Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval confirmed the capture of the 32-year-old on Thursday, saying Ovidio was being held in the capital, Mexico City.
Videos shared on social media, which Reuters was unable to immediately verify, appeared to show heavy fighting overnight in Culiacan, with the sky lit up by helicopter gunfire.
The city’s airport was caught up in the violence, with Mexican airline Aeromexico AEROMEX.MX saying one of its planes had been hit by gunfire ahead of a scheduled flight to Mexico City. No one was hurt, it said.
David Tellez, a passenger who boarded the plane with his wife and three children, said they had decided to stay in the airport until it is safe to leave.
“The city is worse,” he said. “There is a lot of shooting and confusion.”
A Mexican air force plane was also shot at, the federal aviation agency said, adding that the airport in Culiacan, as well as in the Sinaloa cities of Mazatlan and Los Mochis, would remain closed until security could be ensured.
Ovidio’s latest capture comes before a North American leaders’ summit in Mexico City next week, which U.S. President Joe Biden will attend and is expected to discuss security.
The United States had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Ovidio’s arrest or conviction.
It is not clear whether Ovidio will be extradited to the United States like his father, who is serving a life sentence at Colorado’s Supermax, the most secure U.S. federal prison.
A surge in overdose deaths in the United States, fueled by the synthetic opioid fentanyl, has led to increased pressure on Mexico to combat organizations, such as the Sinaloa Cartel, responsible for producing and shipping the drug.
The cartel is one of the world’s most powerful narcotics trafficking organizations.
The arrest helps Mexican law enforcement save face following Ovidio’s 2019 release from custody, said Tomas Guevara, a security expert at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa.
It might also herald a change in approach by the government, Guevara said, after criticism from many security experts that Lopez Obrador was soft on the cartels, an accusation he denies.
The president argues the confrontational tactics of his predecessors were unsuccessful and only caused more bloodshed, saying he would instead pursue a strategy of “hugs not bullets.”
RESIDENTS URGED TO STAY INDOORS
The security forces attempted to control the violent response to the arrest in Culiacan with heavily armed teams patrolling in pickup trucks.
“We continue to work on controlling the situation,” said Cristobal Castaneda, Sinaloa’s public security chief.
Authorities urged people to stay indoors and said schools and administrative offices were closed due to the violence. Street blockades had also been erected.
Joaquin Guzman, 65, was convicted in New York in 2019 of trafficking billions of dollars of drugs to the United States and conspiring to murder enemies.
Eduardo Guerrero, director of Lantia Consulting which analyzes Mexican organized crime, said pressure from the Biden administration to target the Sinaloa Cartel had likely motivated Mexico to go after Guzman.
But he warned that while Ovidio’s capture was likely to weaken that cartel, it could help its main rival, the notoriously violent Jalisco New Generation Cartel.
“It’s very important the government bear in mind that the weakening of the Sinaloa Cartel may also bring about an even greater expansion, a greater presence of the Jalisco Cartel.”